UPDATE May 15, 10am: Tiger announced today that Alice Springs once again topped the airline’s voting poll and that both Alice Springs routes will go on sale this week from about midday today.
By ERWIN CHLANDA
Tyranny of distance is a matter of pocket as well as mind: you feel helpless if your mum, or your kid at uni “down south” gets sick and it would cost you more than a thousand dollars to give them a hug.
Or if your tourism business is running at half steam because people won’t pay through the nose to a carrier that has a monopoly.
So when Tiger returned with four flights a week to and from Sydney and Melbourne, The Alice became a better place to be: for less than the cost of a one-way bus ticket to Tennant Creek (which today cost $129, Tiger to Melbourne or Sydney $89.95), you can get to one of Australia’s two biggest cities, in two and a half hours.
Adelaide, our erstwhile city of choice for shopping and a taste of the “big smoke,” it seems, will be taking a back seat for a while.
Neither service nor equipment are inferior to Qantas: in fact the average age of Tiger’s 11 Airbus A320 aircraft in Australia is four years. The 180 seats and leg room are fine. Check-in is a few minutes sooner than on Qantas – no big deal. The cabin crew are delightful.
There is a whole lot of “commercial in confidence” hoo-haa as far as passenger numbers are concerned, but the Tiger flight to Melbourne I took last Thursday had 147 passengers (82% full) and the flight back on Tuesday had 167 passengers (93% full).
Nation-wide Tiger had a load factor of 85% in March.
The Alice Springs airport had 637,000 passengers financial year ending in 2011 (the most recent stats available), an average of 1745 passengers a day.
Let’s assume my flights had been on the same day, and the Sydney flights were doing equally well, that would have been 628 passengers arriving or departing.
My informal survey suggests that many of those on Tiger would not have come to Alice Springs, nor gone from here to Melbourne. So these are additional travelers, at a guess, half of them tourists who will be spending money here, an achievement for Tourism NT under a new leadership.
On the flipside, locals will now find it easier to spend money out of town.
Cliff Rudolph (pictured), from Houston, Texas, described the Qantas fare as “outrageous” and re-jigged the Australian itinerary for himself and his sister to make his way to Alice by Tiger from Melbourne rather than flying from Brisbane. After a one-day bus trip to The Rock they are flying with Tiger to Sydney tomorrow.
A worker on the Bunnings construction took a $60 flight to see his family in Melbourne. With the cheap flights his family will now come and see him in Alice.
An Aboriginal grandmother took the “cheap flight” in a group of 10, including three daughters and five grandchildren. Those of the group who had booked “at the last minute” had to pay more.
Mark Griffiths took his kids Jaidyn and Shanese (pictured) to Melbourne “to pay our respects” at the Anzac parade and to watch the Essendon game.
“If it wasn’t for Tiger we wouldn’t have been flying,” says Mr Griffiths.
A young couple from Belgium shopped around for a flight until they came upon Tiger.
Most people seemed to be under 30. About half were tourists.
(See more comments on our video.)
The Qantas flight on Thursday, scheduled at exactly the same time as the Tiger flight – 11.50am – seemed to have a lot fewer passengers.
A Qantas spokesperson said: “Our loads over the past two weeks have been consistently strong.
“Our fares from Melbourne and Sydney to Alice Springs start at $189 one-way which includes a premium travel experience with a meal, checked baggage and lounge access (to eligible customers).”
One woman told me that Qantas gave her a “pretty good price” for the south-bound journey but there was no joy on her return on Sunday, when Tiger wasn’t flying.
While Tiger is adamant that it will retain its identity, it would seem obvious that the 60% share acquired by Virgin will strengthen the airline, avoiding delays and other problems plaguing Tiger in its early operations in Australia, leading to the grounding by the regulator CASA in 2011.
A drawback is that Tiger doesn’t offer a loyalty program through frequent flyer points. Virgin does – maybe they will link up in that respect.
For the moment we’ll be stuck apportioning our hard-earned points to expensive Qantas flights rather than cheap Tiger ones.
Melbourne offers a great opportunity for continuing budget travel on the ground.
Most of the city’s attractions are linked by dedicated bike paths, and many Melbournites are fanatical about getting around carbon-free.
Melbourne Bike Share has 51 stations where you can pick up a bike, by doing little more than swiping your credit card.
Says the blurb: “As an individual you can purchase a subscription for a day, week or year. As long as your trips last less than 30 minutes that’s all you’ll pay.”
Casual users get 30 minutes for free each trip, annual users get 45 and corporate, 60. (See our video.)
Tiger’s new head Rob Sharp, who has been in executive positions with Qantas for 15 years and started his new job today, says: “Tiger Airways Holdings, established in 2003, is the parent company of a group of budget carriers operating in the Asian region and Australia.
“The group consists of wholly-owned Tiger Airways Singapore and Tiger Airways Australia, and partially-owned Mandala Airlines and SEAir. Tiger Airways aims to expand its presence in Asia through both new strategic partnerships and organic growth,” he says.
“As at March 31, 2013, the group’s fleet comprises 43 Airbus A320 family aircraft, averaging under three years of age. The group operates an extensive network covering over 50 destinations across 13 countries in the Asia Pacific.”
Federal Transport Minister Anthony Albanese said he welcomes “the ACCC’s decision not to oppose Virgin Australia’s acquisition of 60 per cent of Tiger Airways.
“Australia’s domestic aviation market is growing strongly. Last year was another record year for aviation in Australia – the number of passengers carried on domestic flights grew by 4.1 per cent to a record 56.55 million.
“The decision is good for Virgin and Tiger and tourism generally. Most importantly, this decision is good for jobs which will now be retained,” says Mr Albanese.
In Alice that means employment for around 15 people at the airport part time to service flights from both Melbourne and Sydney four times a week, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, in total providing 2880 visitor seats weekly through Alice Springs airport.
“I believe these ground handling agents also work for other carriers so Tiger is creating additional employment opportunities in Alice Springs,” says a spokeswoman.
PHOTO at top: The Finke, the oldest river in the world. A majestic view on the way to Melbourne. Middle: Part of Lake Eyre, about half-way.